Water quality in Iowa: Will voluntary steps do the job?

By The Dubuque Telegraph Herald


The joke goes something like this: A guy in a hotel lobby is on his hands and knees, obviously searching for something. A second man walks up and says, “Can I help you? What are you looking for?” The first man replies, “My watch, I left it in the bar.” Puzzled, the second man asks, “If you left it in the bar, why are you looking in the lobby?” The timeless reply: “Because the light is better out here.”

That oldie comes to mind when considering Iowa’s strategy to clean up the state’s waterways, which are not getting any better. By far, the biggest contributors to water pollution are the chemicals that are washed off Iowa farmland. Yet, while the state is mandating expensive pollution-control projects for municipalities, for farms it proposes to keep the remedies voluntary.

Any joking aside, though the light might be better elsewhere, such as in municipal water treatment plants, Iowa won’t achieve significant improvements in water quality until it looks squarely in the darker corners, specifically the farm-chemical runoff issue.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ recently released list of problem bodies of water is not encouraging. Not only has the total number of “impaired” waters increased, so has the number in Category 5, the worst level (requiring remediation).

Category 5 waters are all around us. In these parts, they include the Mississippi, the Maquoketa, Catfish Creek, Little Turkey River, Upper Iowa, Volga and Wapsipinicon. But that’s just part of the list.

Considering that water-quality reporting methods and standards have changed over the years, adding waterways to the list, it’s possible that water quality is not that much worse. Yet, after paying millions and millions of dollars the past 20 years on water quality, taxpayers should be concerned that things aren’t getting any better, either.

When chemical fertilizers wash off farm fields and find their way into waterways, the nutrients in them — nitrogen and phosphorus — which are good for crops but in excess are bad for water quality, negatively impact drinking water, aquatic life and recreational opportunities. More and more nutrients from farm after farm wash downriver, to the point that a “dead zone” covers thousands of square miles outside the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. (The zone varies from an area as small as Delaware to one the size of New Jersey.) U.S. farms are responsible for most of the nutrients reaching the Gulf.

“The data are clear,” stated a 2010 report by the Iowa Policy Project. “The fertilizers applied for corn and soybeans production are the largest sources of nutrients in Iowa and the leading cause of water pollution in Iowa’s rivers and streams.”

Iowans want clean water. Two years ago, they approved the Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy Amendment to create a Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Their landslide approval might have been helped by the knowledge that it won’t cost them anything unless the Legislature increases the state sales tax. But it’s the thought that counts.

But Iowans should question the state’s thoughts behind getting tough with local governments operating sewage treatment plants, which account for relatively little water pollution, while continuing to address the biggest source of water pollution — farm chemical runoff — through voluntary measures that Gov. Terry Branstad last week described as a “collaborative approach.”

Yes, agriculture is Iowa’s lifeblood, and it would be economic suicide to clamp down on farming practices so hard that it strangles this industry. Improved conservation practices, which reduce soil erosion, and location-specific application of fertilizers should help reduce some of the runoff. But is the state’s Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy a case of too little, too light and too late?

As retired Department of Natural Resources employee Mark S. Edwards complained in a letter to The Des Moines Register, “These voluntary strategies will do little to slow the expanding debt of pollution. They will leave us with lifetimes of still trying to clean up the mess from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico. I question the lack of real education, wisdom or concern we have for our homeland.”

Federal officials have their doubts, too. The Environmental Protection Agency questions how Iowa intends to measure actual results of its plan, asks the whereabouts of specific action steps, benchmarks and time lines.

Iowa should not throw its agriculture baby out with the (contaminated) bathwater. But it is reasonable for Iowans to expect state government to take a firmer approach to cleaning up its rivers, lakes and streams than just encouraging and hoping farm operations will do the right thing.

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